Rock players really earn their dough

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:41 PM ET

SIX NATIONS, Ont. -- That's the difference between professional lacrosse players and pro athletes from the so-called big four sport leagues in North America.

Lacrosse players will drive hundreds of miles through snowstorms and border posts to get to practice, while other pros complain if the Lobster Thermidor on the chartered airplane isn't hot enough.

As for the money, don't even go there.

Radio guy Andrew Krystal was dead-on last week when he ranted about how top pro athletes are obscenely (my word) overpaid, that nobody deserves tens of millions of dollars a year (especially with so many families hammered by the recession) to whack a baseball or play with a hockey puck.

Most National Lacrosse League players work a second job to make ends meet.

Bob Watson and Ryan Sharp are police officers. Sandy Chapman is a nurse. Blaine Manning is a bond broker. Three-time Champion's Cup MVP and 2005 NLL MVP Colin Doyle is a teacher, as is head coach Troy Cordingley. All are with the Toronto Rock, the only local pro team in these parts, by the way, that's championship calibre. The Rock play the Washington Stealth in the NLL title game on Sunday, the second straight season the two sides battle for NLL supremacy. Last year, Toronto lost the final at Comcast Arena in Everett, Wash. This year, the game’s being played at home, the Air Canada Centre, and the Rock are confident of winning a sixth title.

One of the keys to the Rock's success the past two years has been Dundas, Ont., native Stephan Leblanc. The second-year NLL star (he was the league's rookie of the year last season, edging out teammate Garrett Billings), is third in team playoff scoring (behind Billings and captain Doyle).

But in terms of his commitment to the game, Leblanc takes a back seat to no one. Like most of his teammates, Lablanc has another job — assistant lacrosse coach at Mercyhurst North East, a liberal arts college near Erie, Pa. — and endures a tough commute twice a week (over 1,000 kilometres a week) to play and practice.

The Rock play their home games at the ACC and practice at the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena at Six Nations — a good hike under normal circumstances. But in the past two seasons, there have been times that certainly weren’t normal, when Leblanc couldn’t make it in from the Erie area, where he lives, to practice because of fierce snowstorms that hammer the south shore of the lower Great Lakes.

“The I-90 is full of vineyards, so there’s not many trees to block all the wind coming off the lake, so it gets shut down every once in a while,” Leblanc said. “And there’s been a few times when I’ve headed out to practice and I had to call up (GM) Terry Sanderson and tell him I can’t make it because there’s no possible route, the highway’s closed down. You look out on the streets and there’s transport trucks in the ditch.

“That’s happened a couple of times, but I’m fortunate enough that I have a reliable vehicle and safe tires, so I haven’t worried too much about it,” he added. “You have your ups and downs doing the commute. Being in the car, you get the sore back and other things like that, but it’s my second year doing it and last year I figured out all the kinks — take a break every hour or so, get out, stretch. And it’s been a lot better since I figured out the routine and how to get by with it.”

Like many Canadians in the NLL, Leblanc grew up playing and loving both lacrosse and hockey, though there was a time when his future in both sports was put in hold. When Leblanc was about 10, he was diagnosed with knock-knees and had to undergo surgery.

“When I was running my knees would hit together and I’d have bad bruising throughout,” he said, just prior to a team practice this week at the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena. “I was fortunate that the doctors jumped right on it and they were able to put staples in the growth plates on the inside of my knees and they got me right in the nick of time. I grew six inches, they pulled my knees straight and they’ve been good since.”

Leblanc was an excellent hockey player but decided that lacrosse was the way to go after he was offered a scholarship at Queens University of Charlotte (N.C.). It’s a decision he doesn’t regret, though now, just like other recent college grads, he’s looking for a job as his coaching gig at Mercyhurst, part of a graduate program, expires after this season.

But no matter what happens on the employment front, Leblanc will continue to play lacrosse. Even if that means driving through snowstorms.

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